Chapter 14 Part 1 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book 1
Yellow and blue banners flying from Lord Valmouth’s city residence proclaimed His Grace was in town. The crest of the City’s social season began next week at Neya’s Day, and lasted until the season ended on Nerr’s Day, the first day of Summer’s Beginning; everyone of note in the Kingdom would be in the City for that last spoke of gaiety.
Tonight, Lady Valmouth held a ball. Partygoers’ carriages clogged the street before the hulking, old-fashioned townhouse on Park Square, waiting with varying degrees of patience as the King entered with his entourage of attendants and Guardsmen.
Harsin climbed the stairs, acknowledging onlookers. Once inside the tall, narrow entryway, he gave over his cloak to the waiting servant and shot his cuffs; he absently admired the three gold triangles inlaid in his dark ruby cufflinks, a symbol of both his family and its empire for a thousand years. An evening’s entertainment while his son got over the sulks and cemented his path away from the Lovers’ Temple was the perfect thing. Two of his mistresses would be here tonight; which one he favored with his presence afterward would depend on which charmed him more. His favorite was beginning to fade; the second seemed more likely. Perhaps some enchanting new thing might even catch his eye. It was so hard to tell how the evening would go.
And then he hoped to see Litta. Obviously the conversation with Temmin had gone as expected, but he’d like to know more. The boy so far was completely predictable; his mother’s upbringing had left him with an over-abundant idealism and little to no subtlety of conduct. Right now, Harsin found that useful, but Temmin needed training in the ways of statecraft to be an effective king, or even an effective Heir. Harsin resolved to talk with Teacher, and entered the throng to the usual fanfare.
He entertained himself by taking the youngest daughter of the house onto the dance floor first. The lady was far too inexperienced to interest him, barely out of the schoolroom, but something about a flustered, pretty young girl, blushing and stammering, amused him no end; to boot, the King’s attention would fill her dance card faster than her still-unformed looks would, which amused him even more.
The second dance he gave to his waning favorite, a slender, long-legged woman who realized her sun was setting; an understated desperation lingered in her clasp, the color high in her cheeks as his ear missed every third word. He left her at the sidelines with a dismissive bow. She bored him. He’d set her aside before Neya’s Day with a nice present of a costly necklace, perhaps a country house--something that would please both her and her cuckolded husband. His eye roamed over the dancers to land on his rising favorite, the dark-eyed, olive-skinned daughter of an Alzehni merchant, a Miss Selvaci; their eyes met, and his satisfaction with himself grew.
He turned toward a commotion at the top of the stairs. Applause and obeisances rippled through the crowd: the Obbys had entered. A surprise: Harsin had expected they'd absent themselves from any social situation where they might encounter him, at least for a few days.
A tug in Harsin’s groin brought sympathy for his poor foolish son. Though Harsin’s tastes didn’t run to men, Issak might change anyone’s mind, and Allis was in astonishing looks even for her, long black hair brilliant against luminous skin. He regretted keeping Temmin from them, but only momentarily; after tonight, Temmin might make any number of appointments with them with no more thought than Harsin ever gave it. A fluttery young man buttonholed Issak, and they disappeared into a side room.
Unexpectedly, Allis met Harsin’s eye. Always be gracious to the defeated, especially the beautiful defeated, he said to himself. He strode through the parting crowd to her side.
“Your Majesty,” Allis smiled, curtseying low.
“Holy One,” replied Harsin with a bow. The musicians began the introduction to the next dance; he took her on his arm and they twirled onto the floor. Harsin’s hand fit so delightfully at her waist--such a delicate woman for such curves. “I will be calling on you in our official capacities, soon, I think,” he said.
Allis lifted a brow. “You surprise me, sir. I should have thought we would suffer from your disfavor for at least, oh, two years.”
“My disfavor? How could anyone be angry with you, Miss Obby?”
“I have heard that your son’s plans to join us as Supplicant have displeased you. Nevertheless, you are welcome at the Temple any time you wish. If you don’t care to run into him, we’re happy to offer you the Door of Discretion.”
“Oh, Miss Obby, I thought it quite clear that Nerr will not be getting the Heir, at least this Heir.” Harsin whipped her through a turn, but she stumbled nary a bit.
“The conversation with Lord Litta?” she said, returning his smile. “You may note His Grace’s absence this evening.”
“I hadn’t noticed. You have my entire attention.”
Her smile revealed the tips of her teeth, shining white against her rosy lips, intimate and promising, but she said nothing.
Curiosity overcame him. “What explains Litta’s absence?”
She danced on tiptoe, and leaned in toward his ear. “Two things stop blackmailers,” she said. “Prompt disclosure of the horrible secret they threaten to reveal, and horrible secrets of their own.”
They danced in silence, Allis keeping her eyes on his face, and Harsin staring absently over her head at the yellow and blue draperies, the yellow and blue livery of the servants lining the walls, the yellow and blue flowers--Lady Valmouth’s over-use of her husband’s colors was giving him a headache. “I must say, Miss Obby, that I do admire your nerve,” he said.
“I cannot return the compliment, I fear.”
“Have a care, my dear,” he said, tightening his grip around her waist. “I am an embodiment myself, the embodiment of this empire.”
“Your Majesty, I am the Embodiment of a Goddess. I’m not the one who must have a care. However powerful you think you are, you are nothing compared to my Mistress.”
“Your Mistress has strict rules about confidentiality. And yet you risk displeasing Her.”
“You and your proxies risk your souls, sir, with far fewer qualms,” she replied. “As to confidentiality, of course we would never betray any confidence given in worship, but we have many, many sources of unprivileged information. Devotees of the Lovers are in all walks of life, you know, especially one particularly intimate profession. It is not at all difficult for us to learn useful things about anyone, however high or low.”
The dance ended. Allis curtsied again and sailed into the crowd, a trail of men following her.
Harsin’s dinner curdled, and his restless eye skipped from face to face. Lady Litta stood in a knot of older women, jowls a-wobble, but no sign of her husband. Never mind. Winmer’s plan unfolded tonight, and after that it wouldn’t matter.